Thursday, March 26, 2015


Rated: R

STARS: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca
DIRECTOR: Pierre Morel
GENRE: Action/Thriller

I wanted to like The Gunman, and in the beginning I thought that I might. A great actor in Sean Penn; mesmerizing score from Marco Beltrami; some heady aerial cinematography of exotic locales; and a developing love triangle involving the characters played by Penn, Javier Bardem (speaking of pretty darn good actors), and Jasmine Trinca, who reminds me just a wee bit of Ingrid Bergman. 

But then the movie devolves into your typical Hollywood  BANG BANG SHOOT 'EM UP killfest, designed to show off the impressive results of Sean Penn's gym workouts--so naturally he appears shirtless during much of the action.

Under the cover of working for an NGO in the Congo, ex-special forces operative Jim Terrier (Penn) pulls off an assassination of a government minister, then gets the hell outta Dodge--leaving his girlfriend (Trinca) in the hands of Felix (Bardem), who promises to take good care of her. That he does, and later Terrier finds the two of them married to each other. That's one big bummer, but an even bigger one is the multi-national corporation that hired him to do the hit is now coming after him, because he knows too much. Cue ubiquitous hand-to hand-combat, shootouts, bodies piling up....your usual action/thriller fare intended to numb you to onscreen violence so they can keep selling it to you again and again. What becomes commonplace becomes accepted--and hey, at least it takes you out of your humdrum workaday life, right?.

The trouble with films spawned from novels--in this case The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette--is that they're trying to cram so many plot elements into the allotted time, to remain at least somewhat faithful to the book, that everything moves at warp speed. There's no time to pause and reflect upon what just occurred, or to totally grasp how it all fits into the big picture so you can follow along without feeling like a dumb ass.

 And why are we supposed to root for things to turn out well for a paid assassin?  Because he now works for a real NGO in a Carter-esque attempt at redemption?  In the old days, our movie heroes were clearly good guys. Now we are asked to resonate with sociopaths, a la Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper. As long as they show us they still have a human side lurking in there somewhere, it's okay. But that's a slippery slope. And to feed the conspiracy theorist in us all, you may want to consider how such a mindset might make you more forgiving of things like...oh...American foreign policy, for example. (Just a thought--I usually have ONE every day.)

The silliest thing about The Gunman, though, is the ludicrous fairy tale ending. But hey, don't get me started.

Grade: D +


Here we go again, agreeing. And Ilike violent films! But this one had too many plots and too little character development. Back when Tony Soprano, a mafia don, had to see a shrink because he was suffering from panic attacks, I thought the concept was brilliant. But now we have Penn's character suffering from head trauma injuries as a result of all his bad guy battles. His symptoms? Headaches, blurred vision, lack of coordination and memory loss. Forcing him to write down names, addresses and stuff your average assassin usually commits to memory. We never know when he's going to fog out which, I suppose, adds to the tension. But it just seemed like a clever device to me – a way for certain classified information to get into the wrong hands.

I like Sean Penn but not in this film. I was more fascinated by how many cigarettes he smoked (and inhaled) than by the number of thugs he obliterated. I read online that he's quit smoking now and his girlfriend Charlize Theron is thrilled about it. Normally, I like to end my reviews with something positive. But The Gunman really doesn't deserve it. Unless, maybe, you think the underbelly of a bullring is a good place to stage the final gunfight.

Grade: D

Sunday, March 15, 2015

CHAPPIE (2015)

Rated: R

STARS: Dev Patel,  Sharlito Copley, Hugh Jackman, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser,  Sigourney Weaver
DIRECTOR: Neil Blomkamp
GENRE: Action/Sci-fi/Fantasy

It's the near future--so near that nothing much looks different except for the droids that now comprise a segment of the Johannesburg police force. (If this ever happens for real, it might improve the public perception of the cops...anything's worth a try). Young inventor Deon (Dev Patel), designs them.  But he's not stopping there. He wants to create the first robot with genuine artificial intelligence. He succeeds (be careful what you wish for) in the form of "Chappie," who starts out as a mental infant, but he's a really quick study and before you know it he's mastering the language and painting like that dude on TV with the big Afro.

When Chappie is kidnapped by some nasty-ass thugs who think they can use him to pull off a big heist, the plot kicks into high gear.  Deon falls into the clutches of the gangsters too, and though he gets roughed-up and threatened, he takes a stand for good parenting and implores his highly impressionable creation not to do bad things. Meanwhile, rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who works for the same weapons manufacturer as Deon, has had the funding cut for his own attack robot, Moose. He makes it his mission to take Chappie out of commission, putting himself and Moose on a collision course with Deon and his brainchild in an epic CGI battle that rivals the one in writer-director Neil Blomkamp's District 9. In both films, Blomkamp is making a point about heroism and laying it all on the line when the odds are stacked against you. And I've never seen it done in more soul-stirring fashion. 

 Despite all that, Chappie is played for laughs as often as not. It's cute and endearing when the gangsters teach him to pepper his speech with ghetto expletives (yes, a robot spouting the MF word is funny because it's so unexpected), and when they hang all this bling around his neck to make him one bad lookin' dude. The only thing I felt was over the top at first was Chappie's voice. Instead of your normal monotone droid voice, Chappie's takes on a human quality--first mimicking that of a scared toddler, then going through the other stages of development until he grows into an emotional adult. This made him a little too human for my willing suspension of disbelief to kick in. I mean, sooner or later he's gonna start thinking about women, and then he looks down at himself and tries to figure out just how that's gonna work... er, forget I mentioned it . But it's impossible to watch this film and not be won over by the little guy. The way we were won over by E. T. 

Chappie poses thoughtful questions about the nature of consciousness--even drawing parallels with reincarnation--as a robot with a dying battery finds himself in a race against time to find a new body to inhabit. 

I walked out of the theater thinking, Well... that was pretty wild!

Grade:  B +


It's more fun for the reader when Tim and I disagree. And being un-fond of futuristic, robot-infested films, I was positive we would. But I soon forgot all about Chappie's outer appearance and became totally caught up in his life-threatening adventure. When he was being beaten up by a gang of homeless hooligans, my heart went out to him. When he was torn between doing the right thing or seeking his bad-ass daddy's approval, I empathized. Just like I teared up when ET put his glowing finger on Elliot's forehead and said, "I'" I don't know who deserves the most credit for making these non humans human. Is it the director? The writer? The digital miracle workers? I suppose it's a combination of all three. I was even reminded of that volleyball in Cast Away that Tom Hanks named Wilson, how real that inanimate object became!

Sure, there were holes in Chappie.(The script not his body.) Hugh Jackman's character was ill-defined and cartoonish in his need for revenge. And Deon, Chappie's nerdy inventor, seemed irrationally brave considering his line of work. But I was totally caught up in the story; how seeking approval makes even robots do the damndest things. Scriptwriters Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell were spot on when it comes to showing us what a huge influence parent figures  have—be they criminals or computer geeks—on a young, untested mind.

Sorry, folks. But I'm with Tim on this one.

Grade: B +

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Rated: PG-13

Stars:  Julianne Moore,  Alec Baldwin,  Kristen Stewart,  Kate Bosworth 
Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Genre: Drama

It was no surprise to most that Julianne Moore collected the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer's at age 50.  Alice begins to forget words--especially disturbing to someone in her position. She gets lost while out jogging in familiar places. This is how it begins.

There is no cure for this insidious disease, and you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. So how it ends is not pretty. But we go on this journey with Alice because it's not just a tale of an individual and her slow deterioration, it's a story about family dynamics and how deeply they can be affected.

Alice is married to a medical professional (Alec Baldwin) and has three grown children. When a family conference is called to break the news of her diagnosis, the kids have no clue, and at first ask their parents if they are breaking up. They are blindsided. To make the scene even more cringe-worthy, Alice has to inform them that her particular brand of the disease is familial, meaning there's a fifty-fifty chance it could be passed on to the kids--one of whom is about to drop twins upon the world!

There is a chilling scene where Alice, in the early stages of her condition, records a video message to her future self, with instructions on what to do when things get to a certain stage. Will she or won't she follow through becomes the only real story question in Still Alice--which, like the disease itself,  proceeds to its foregone and inevitable conclusion. 

One of the other good performances here is turned in by Kristen Stewart, as Alice's aspiring actress daughter, who makes the decision to detour from her career and step up to become her mother's primary caregiver. 

Alec Baldwin gives a toned-down turn as the husband who is trying to do the right thing at every turn. There is one scene where he begins to get a little cranky, and I'm sitting there saying THERE...there's the REAL Alec Baldwin! 

I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you up front that Still Alice is a depressing movie.  But no less than a must-see. Because it's one that will make you think. 

Think about living every moment to the fullest. 

Grade:  B +


I haven't been this disturbed by a movie since Ingmar Bergman's Wild StrawberriesStill Alice doesn't pretty up this awful disease one bit. And Julianne Moore doesn't pretty herself up, either. It is a searingly honest portrayal. One that is, at times, difficult to watch. As she deteriorates, so do we. I especially winced when her character was unable to find the bathroom in her own home, one she had lived in for years. As someone who prides herself on using just the right word or phrase, this film really got to me. And since I'm of an age where healthy forgetfulness happens all too frequently, the idea of losing total use of my brain is frankly terrifying.

That being said, Still Alice is a masterful piece of filmwork. Directors Brian Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (yes, two directors) played with our eyes as well as our minds by fading in and out of focus at unexpected intervals. Sort of like the way Julianne Moore's character was lucid one moment and in a fog the next.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The day Tim and I went to see it, there were mostly seniors in the audience. It got me wondering if its effect on a younger audience would be as life-threatening. Probably not. The list of celebrities who have suffered from this cruel disease is frightening. Ronald Reagan is probably the most famous victim. But there are others from the film community whose brilliance slowly faded into nothingness: Otto Preminger, Dana Andrews, Charles Bronson, Arlene Francis, Mike Frankovic, Rita Hayworth, Charleton Heston, Burgess Meredith, Edmond O'Brien, too many to name...

For a sobering experience, go see Still Alice.

Grade: B